The Met Museum’s top curator of contemporary art is leaving the Met Museum

Sheena Wagstaff frequently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art while she was an art student in the 1980s and took refuge with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Asian Art Department. Her appointment as the museum’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art in 2012 brought the most overshadowed department at America’s premier museum to an acclaimed international exhibition program that has included Kerry James Marshall, Gerhard Richter, David Hockney, Lygia Pape, Jack Whitten, and Siah Armajani .

Earlier this week, just before her 10th year as department chair, Wagstaff announced via email to friends and associates that she would be stepping down from her position this summer – after a difficult recovery from a coronavirus infection prompted her to to take stock of their priorities outside the museum.

“I’ve always wanted to work in an encyclopedic museum,” Wagstaff, 65, said in an interview, adding, “It’s a bittersweet moment.”

Describing her mission in her email, she said that despite the creation of the department now known as Modern and Contemporary Art in 1967, the museum “is not moving away from North America and Europe, either in its collection or in its exhibition program had”.

She changed that. “The vision was to reinforce international modernism beyond the western hemisphere and significantly rebalance our representation of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including significant works by female and black artists from around the world and closer to home. “

The opportunity to contextualize modern and contemporary art in a space housing Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek and Roman marble had drawn Wagstaff to New York from her long-standing position as chief curator of Tate Modern in London. An art historian born in England but raised in the Mediterranean, Germany and Scotland, Wagstaff came to the Met at a time of great upheaval as the institution prepared to take over Marcel Breuer’s building at the Whitney Museum of American Art in The Madison Avenue and many curatorial departments were reorganized.

she showed works from Latin America to North Africa to Southeast Asia, to present these works in conversation with their American colleagues to uncover the global movement of ideas.

Breuer’s modernist gallery labyrinth became a testing ground for Wagstaff’s vision. There she helped produce experimental exhibitions of unfinished artworks, art that explored conspiracy theories, and lifelike sculptures. Some critics hailed the Met-Breuer program as a daring leap forward compared to the main building’s staid selection of canonical Warhols and Pollocks, while others wished it had pushed the envelope even further. “The Met Breuer will continue to do sprawling thematic extravaganzas that coax, excite, and provoke until they get it right,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote of her second effort in this universally appealing species, Like Life: Sculpture , Color and Body”, 2018. (Das Breuer closed in 2020.)

Wagstaff was a prolific curator. According to the museum, she oversaw 88 exhibitions, added 1,400 objects to the museum’s collections, and initiated the Met’s annual roof art commissions, which have become a staple of the city’s tourist season. (Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Halsey’s forthcoming installation was recently postponed due to logistical issues.) She oversaw commissions for the Met facade and Great Hall, which were occupied by the likes of Wangechi Mutu and Kent Monkman.

Wagstaff unveiled its plans nearly two months after the museum announced that Mexican architect Frida Escobedo would design its new $500 million modern and contemporary art wing, a long-delayed project that will bring some of the the institution’s dullest galleries should be updated. Wagstaff said she hopes the renovation will be complete within the next seven to eight years.

“Sheena was a real inspiration as a colleague,” says Max Hollein, director of the museum. wrote in a letter to employees. “She constantly challenges herself and others, always with the goal of working together to achieve the best outcome for the institution.”

Curators who have worked with Wagstaff said she often took a casual approach, trusting staff to meet their commitments. “She’s been very supportive,” said Douglas Eklund, a photography curator who retired from the Met last year. In 2018 he worked with her department on the exhibition “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” which explored conspiracies and American politics.

“The subject was something like touching the third rail, but she wasn’t scared,” added Eklund. “I felt empowered by them.”

Wagstaff said that a highlight of her time at the museum was working with the artists, who validated her hypothesis that modern and contemporary art is best viewed through the lens of history. “Kerry James Marshall never ceased to surprise me,” Wagstaff gave as an example. “He was someone who looked at the rococo, and very few people would even take a second look at the rococo.”

The curator said she will be based in New York City after leaving the museum. She has already planned her next projects, although she declined to go into details other than to say she would continue to be involved in the arts.

“I am very pleased to hand over the baton to a successor who can build on what has been achieved,” said Wagstaff in her closing address to the employees. “I’ve decided this is a good time to move on to my next goals.”

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